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Becoming a torturer: Towards a global ergonomics of care

  • Jonathan Luke Austin and Riccardo Bocco

How do people become torturers? And how do we stop that transformation? This article addresses these questions by calling on academics and practitioners to consider caring for – expressing sympathy, understanding, and working with – the figure of the “not-quite-yet” torturer. We begin by noting the globality of torture across space and regime type, and suggest that this globality indicates how torture is – very frequently – not the result of any decision or order. This is followed by a discussion of the “consciousness” of the torturer vis-à-vis (1) their paradoxical emotional scarring by their own actions, and (2) their frequent descriptions of having, indeed, never themselves “intended” to torture someone. Drawing on recent developments in the theory of consciousness, we then argue that this non-purposeful enaction of torture can be understood in terms of certain somatic markers that lead, in particular material-situational settings, to people slipping towards violence. Drawing on the theory of the emergence of violence put forward by Jonathan Luke Austin, we then sketch out more fully the process of becoming a torturer in terms of the situational and material dynamics that encourage these slippages, as well as a global circulatory system of violent knowledges through various sources that become activated in particular settings. We thus suggest that becoming a torturer is more a process of transition than of decision, before noting that this distinction is often lost in the cultural cycle of torture that emerges once torture has begun. Finally, we move to outlining the implications of this non-purposeful understanding of torture by arguing for a new preventive strategy based on the principles of ergonomics and modifying the training regimes of the most common professions from which torturers emerge (the military, the police, etc.) in order to make it harder to slip towards violence. We suggest, ultimately, that this strategy of prevention requires placing ourselves in the uncomfortable position of working to care for both the becoming-torturer and the torturers themselves, in order to help them both preserve their own humanity.

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1 Liscano, Carlos, Truck of Fools, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, TN, 2004, p. 71.

2 Ibid., empasis added.

3 See Améry, Jean, At the Mind's Limit, Shocken Books, New York, 1986 ; Scarry, Elaine, The Body in Pain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985 .

4 See, inter alia, Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1958 ; Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Shocken Books, New York, 2004 ; Sironi, Francoise, Bourreaux et victimes, Odile Jacob, Paris, 1999 ; Clegg, Stewart R., Courpasson, David and Phillips, Nelson, Power and Organizations, Sage, London, 2005 ; Crelinsten, Ronald D., “The World of Torture”, Theoretical Crimonology, Vol. 7, No. 3, 2003 .

5 Butler, Judith, Precarious Life, Verso, London, 2004, p. 150; Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1998, p. 3, emphasis added.

6 As we will see below, drawing a distinction between purposefulness and intentionality is very important in discussions of political violence. While most human actions are in some sense intentional, many – including violence – are not necessarily purposeful.

7 See, inter alia, Austin, Jonathan Luke, “Torture and the Material-Semiotic Networks of Violence Across Borders”, International Political Sociology, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2016 ; Austin, Jonathan Luke, Guarantees of Non-Recurrence and the Violence Prevention (VIPRE) Initiative, Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding, Geneva, 2016 ; Austin, Jonathan Luke, “We Have Never Been Civilized: Torture and the Materiality of World Political Binaries”, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2017 ; Austin, Jonathan Luke, Small Worlds of Violence: A Global Grammar for Torture, Graduate Institute Geneva, 2017 ; Jonathan Luke Austin, “A Visual Ethnomethodology of Torture in Action: Boys in Tyres, Biopolitics, and Locally Ordered Violences”, available on request, 2017; Jonathan Luke Austin, “Hot Tea with Sugar and the Translation(s) of Torture”, in Trine Villumsen Berling et al. (eds), Translations of Security, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, forthcoming 2017; Jonathan Luke Austin and Anna Leander, “Visibility: Practices of Seeing and Overlooking”, in Christian Bueger and Alena Drieschova (eds.), Mapping International Practice: Concepts, Debates, and Borders of International Practice Theory, forthcoming 2018; Jonathan Luke Austin, “The Chair Sits on the Man: The Non-Human Perpetration of Violence”, in Susanne C. Knittel and Zachary J. Goldberg (eds), Routledge Handbook of Perpetrator Studies, Routledge, London, forthcoming 2018. See also: and (all internet references were accessed in October 2016).

8 See Collins, Randall, Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2007 .

9 For more information, see: Graduate Institute Center on Conflict Development and Peacebuilding, Films, Collective Memories and National History in Political Transitions, Conflict and Post-Conflict Contexts, available at:

10 J. L. Austin, “Torture and the Material-Semiotic Networks of Violence Across Borders”, above note 7.

11 See ibid. and J. L. Austin, Small Worlds of Violence, above note 7.

12 See:

13 On the globality of torture, see J. L. Austin, “Torture and the Material-Semiotic Networks of Violence across Borders”, above note 7.

14 See: ICRC, “What We Do for Detainees”, available at:

15 Vreeland, James Raymond, “Political Institutions and Human Rights”, International Organization, Vol. 62, No. 1, 2008, p. 65.

16 For full details, see: the Ill-Treatment and Torture Data Collection Project website, available at:

17 Rick Noack, “Most Countries Are against Torture — but Most Have Also Been Accused of It”, Washington Post, 12 December 2014, available at:

18 J. L. Austin, “Torture and the Material-Semiotic Networks of Violence Across Borders”, above note 7.

19 Sironi, Francoise and Branche, Raphael, “Torture and the Borders of Humanity”, International Social Science Journal, Vol. 54, No. 174, 2002, p. 539.

20 J. L. Austin, “Torture and the Material-Semiotic Networks of Violence Across Borders”, above note 7, p. 3. See, for many additional examples, J. L. Austin, “We Have Never Been Civilized” and Small Worlds of Violence, both above note 7.

21 See Rejali, Darius, Torture and Democracy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2007 ; Rejali, Darius, “Modern Torture as a Civic Marker”, Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003 ; and, again, J. L. Austin, Small Worlds of Violence, above note 7.

22 The common view that torture is trained is largely espoused by critical scholars within history, anthropology and political science. These perspectives argue that several famous instances of people having been trained under particular programmes (typically run and funded by France or the United States) who then went on to torture in their respective theatres of operations are evidence of a deliberate attempt to distribute torture techniques across borders. The classic example here is the operation of the US Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia. Graduates of the school from States located in the Southern Cone of Latin America went on to torture during the so-called Dirty Wars of the 1970s and 1980s. As Austin explains, however, there is little evidence of direct training to torture at this facility, and such training is largely assumed based on what came afterwards. There is evidence in this case and others of interrogation resistance training which involves mock torture later being used as a knowledge source for actual torture, but this is not the principle point made by advocates of this thesis. For the accounts of those who support this thesis, see Khalili, Laleh, Time in the Shadows, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2012 ; Chomsky, Noam and Herman, Edward., The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Black Rose Press, Montreal, 1979 ; and for the critique, see J. L. Austin, “We Have Never Been Civilized”, above note 7.

23 D. Rejali, Torture and Democracy, above note 21, p. 11.

24 On all these cases see McCoy, Alfred W., Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI, 2012 ; Williams, A. T., A Very British Killing, Vintage Books, London, 2013 ; Blakeley, Ruth and Raphael, Sam, “British Torture in the ‘War on Terror’”, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2017 ; US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program, Washington, DC, 2014 ; Chandler, David, Voices from S-21, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1999 .

25 See below for real-world examples of this.

26 See Huysmans, Jeff, “The Jargon of Exception”, International Political Sociology, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2008 .

27 Except in a broader philosophical sense which stresses the historical genealogy of the modern democratic State as maintaining aspects of a “sovereign” form of political rule under the guise of a more civilized form of order. See G. Agamben, above note 5; Debrix, Francois and Barder, Alexander D., Beyond Biopolitics, Routledge, London, 2012 .

28 While this is an exaggeration, of course, the basic thesis underlying much political science studying non-democratic regimes retains such a hierarchical view of power (albeit noted as being constrained by interests, institutions, identities, etc.). See, for examples, Davenport, Christian, “State Repression and Political Order”, Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2007 ; Henderson, Conway W., “Conditions Affecting the Use of Political Repression”, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 35, No. 1, 1991 .

29 UN Human Rights Council, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic”, Geneva, 2016, p. 12.

30 Keeley, Lawrence H., War before Civilization, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996, p. 180.

31 Ibid., p. 180.

32 Grossman, Dave, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Back Bay Books, New York, 1996 .

33 On dehumanization, see Waytz, Adam, Epley, Nicholas and Cacioppo, John T., “Social Cognition Unbound: Insights into Anthropomorphism and Dehumanization”, Current Directions in Psycological Science, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2010 ).

34 R. Collins, above note 8, p. 20, emphasis added.

35 Danchev, Alex, “Bad Apples, Dead Souls: Understanding Abu Ghraib”, International Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 6 2008 .

36 On the perpetrators at Abu Ghraib, see, in particular, Zimbardo, Phillip G., The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York, 2007 .

37 F. Sironi, above note 4.

38 J. L. Austin, Small Worlds of Violence, above note 7.

39 C. Liscano, above note 1, p. 27.

40 Tognato, Carlo, “Performing ‘Legitimate’ Torture”, Thesis Eleven, Vol. 103, No. 1, 2010, p. 94.

41 Fernando Guzzoni, Carne de perro, 2012.

42 Marcela Saïd, El mocito, 2010. See, for similar accounts, Carlos Bustamante, El vecino, 2000; Gonzalo Justiniano, Amnesia, 1995.

43 Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, New York, 2004, p. 199.

44 Dodd, James, Violence and Phenomenology, Routledge, New York, 2009, p. 75.

45 Laing, David Ronald, The Divided Self, Penguin, London, 1990 ; Fierke, K. M, “Whereof We Can Speak, Thereof We Must Not Be Silent: Trauma, Political Solipsism and War”, Review of International Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4, 2004 ; D. Grossman, above note 32.

46 Ray, Wiliam J. et al. ., “Decoupling Neural Networks from Reality”, Psychological Science, Vol. 17, No. 10, 2006 , p. 825. Also see Ataria, Yochai, “I Am Not My Body, This Is Not My Body”, Human Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2, 2015 .

47 Lagouranis, Tony and Mikaelian, Allen, Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey through Iraq, Penguin, London, 2007, p. 244.

48 Kevin Bell, “How Our Training Fails Us When It Counts”, ARMY, November 2011, p. 42.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid., p. 43, emphasis added.

51 Sanyal, Debarati, “Crabwalk History: Torture, Allegory, and Memory in Sartre”, Yale French Studies, No. 118/119, 2010, p. 64.

52 Ringmar, Erik, “How the World Stage Makes Its Subjects”, Journal of International Relations and Development, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2016, p. 8, emphasis added. For details, see Brothers, Leslie, Friday's Footprint, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997 ; Damasio, Antonio R., Self Comes to Mind, Vintage Books, New York, 2012 .

53 On dehumanization, see Kelman, Herbert C., “Violence without Moral Restraint”, Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 23, No. 4, 1973 .

54 For the classic use of this claim to discuss the crimes of the Nazi regime in Germany, see Browning, Christopher R., Ordinary Men, HarperCollins, London, 1993 .

55 J. L. Austin, “A Visual Ethnomethodology of Torture in Action” and Small Worlds of Violence, both above note 7.

56 See, inter alia, Matthews, Richard, “An Empirical Critique of ‘Interrogational’ Torture”, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2012 ; Dershowitz, A. M., Why Terrorism Works, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2002 .

57 J. L. Austin, Small Worlds of Violence, above note 7; R. Collins, above note 8.

58 A. R. Damasio, above note 52.

59 Herman, Judith Lewis, “Crime and Memory”, Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1995 .

60 Bill Chappell, “North Miami Officer Was Aiming at Man with Autism, Union Chief Says”, National Public Radio, 22 July 2016, available at:

61 Marissa Bagg, “New Video Shows Moments Before and After Man Was Shot by North Miami Police Officer”, NBC Miami, 21 July 2016, available at:

62 B. Chappell, above note 60.

63 Ringmar, Erik, “Outline of a Non-Deliberative, Mood-Based, Theory of Action”, Philosophia, Vol. 44, No. 4, 2016 .

64 Ibid.; A. R. Damasio, above note 52.

65 Ringmar, Erik, “The Search for Dialogue as a Hinderance to Understanding”, International Theory, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2014, p. 9, emphasis in original.

66 E. Ringmar, above note 63, p. 5, emphasis added.

67 See the discussion in Austin, Jonathan Luke and Jütersonke, Oliver, Understanding the Grammar of the City, Geneva Peacebuilding Platform, Geneva, 2016 .

68 J. L. Austin, “Torture and the Material-Semiotic Networks of Violence across Borders” and Small Worlds of Violence, both above note 7.

69 See Latour, Bruno, Reassembling the Social, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005 ; Law, John, After Method, Routledge, London, 2004 .

70 Law, John, “Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics”, in Turner, Bryan S. (ed.), The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, Blackwell, London, 2009, p. 141.

71 De Landa, Manuel, A New Philosophy of Society, Continuum, London, 2006 .

72 J. L. Austin, Small Worlds of Violence, above note 7.

73 Ibid.

74 F. Sironi, above note 4.

75 On these rituals see Belkin, Aaron, Bring Me Men, C. Hurst & Co, London, 2012 .

76 See, for example, Collins, Randall, Interaction Ritual Chains, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2004 ; R. Collins, above note 8.

77 P. G. Zimbardo, above note 36.

78 See J. L. Austin, “We Have Never Been Civilized” and Small Worlds of Violence, both above note 7.

79 Berkowitz, Leonard and Lepage, Anthony, “Weapons as Aggression-Eliciting Stimuli”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1967 ; Latour, Bruno, Pandora's Hope, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999 .

80 J. L. Austin, “Torture and the Material-Semiotic Networks of Violence across Borders”, above note 7.

81 Ibid.; J. L. Austin, Small Worlds of Violence, above note 7.

82 UMAM, Mafātīh Al-Sijn Al-Sūrī, UMAM Documentation & Research, Beirut, 2012, p. 64; D. Rejali, Torture and Democracy, above note 21, p. 187.

83 J. L. Austin, Small Worlds of Violence, above note 7.

84 Banuazizi, Ali and Movahedi, Siamak, “Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison”, American Psychologist, Vol. 30, 1975 .

85 Romesh Ratnesar, “The Menace Within”, Stanford Alumni, July/August 2011.

86 Ibid.

87 J. L. Austin, Small Worlds of Violence, above note 7.

88 On peripheral knowledges, see Haas, Martine R. and Ham, Wendy, “Microfoundations of Knowledge Recombination”, Advances in Strategic Management, Vol. 32, 2015 .

89 Sanday, Peggy Reeves, Fraternity Gang Rape, New York University Press, New York, 2007 .

90 J. L. Austin, Small Worlds of Violence, above note 7.

91 Monika Borgmann, Lokman Slim, and Hermann Theissen (dir.), Massaker, UMAM Productions, 2004.

92 Brink, Joram Ten and Oppenheimer, Joshua, Killer Images, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012 . Also see Marie-Monique Robin, Escadrons de la mort, 2003.

93 J. L. Austin, “Torture and the Material-Semiotic Networks of Violence across Borders” and Small Worlds of Violence, both above note 7.

94 See John K. Tsukayama, “By Any Means Necessary”, unpublished PhD dissertation, St Andrews, 2014.

95 Ibid., p. 186.

96 Ibid., p. 162.

97 Ibid., p. 212.

98 J. L. Austin, Small Worlds of Violence, above note 7.

99 Adam Chandler, “Eichmann's Best Man Lived and Died in Syria”, The Atlantic, 1 December 2014.

100 Mona Mahmood et al., “Revealed: Pentagon's Link to Iraqi Torture Centres”, The Guardian, 6 March 2013.

101 J. L. Austin, “Torture and the Material-Semiotic Networks of Violence across Borders”, above note 7.

102 F. Fanon, above note 43, p. 198, emphasis added.

103 J. L. Austin, Small Worlds of Violence, above note 7.

104 Hagan, John, Schoenfeld, Heather and Palloni, Alberto, “The Science of Human Rights, War Crimes, and Humanitarian Emergencies”, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 32, 2006, p. 329.

105 McDermott, Rose and Hatemi, Peter K., “The Study of International Politics in the Neurobiological Revolution”, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, 2014 .

106 Sedra, Mark, The Future of Security Sector Reform, Centre for International Governance Innovation, Waterloo, CA, 2010 .

107 See, inter alia, Sikkink, Kathryn, The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics, W. W. Norton, New York, 2011 ; Sikkink, Kathryn and Keck, Maragret E., Activists Beyond Borders, Cornell University Press, New York, 1998 .

108 Ankerson, Christopher P., “Praxis Versus Policy: Peacebuilding in the Military”, in Keating, Tom and Knight, W. Andy (eds), Building Sustainable Peace, University of Alberta Press, Edmonton, AB, 2004 ; Call, Charles T. and Cook, Susan E., “On Democratization and Peacebuilding”, Global Governance, Vol. 9, No. 2, 2003 ; Chetail, Vincent and Jutersonke, Oliver, Peacebuilding, Routledge, London, 2014 .

109 K. Sikkink, above note 107.

110 Nowak, Manfred, “The Need for a World Court of Human Rights”, Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2007 .

111 Advocacy Forum Nepal, “Vetting in Nepal: Challenges and Issues”, Kathmandu, 2014.

112 J. L. Austin, “Torture and the Material-Semiotic Networks of Violence across Borders”, above note 7.

113 US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, above note 24; Open Society Foundation, “Globalizing Torture”, New York, 2013.

114 Sivak, Michael and Tsimhoni, Omer, “Improving Traffic Safety”, Journal of Saftey Research, Vol. 39, 2008 .

115 The VIPRE Initiative is an international collaboration led by Jonathan Luke Austin, who conceived, designed and is implementing the project. For more details, see:

116 J. L. Austin, Small Worlds of Violence, above note 7.

117 Ingold, Tim, The Perception of the Environment, Routledge, London, 2000, p. 195.

118 Ibid.

119 Ibid.

120 J. L. Austin, Small Worlds of Violence, above note 7.

121 C. Liscano, above note 1, p. 71, emphasis added.

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